Sisters of charity

With Ramadan's focus on giving, we profile five special women who devote their lives to helping others.
Gulshan Kavarana, front right, with her daughter, Zara, right, on an outing with special needs children.
Gulshan Kavarana, front right, with her daughter, Zara, right, on an outing with special needs children.

Roshni Raimalwala

Karama Kanteen

A mother of two and a housewife, Raimalwala, 52, from India, co-founded Karama Kanteen, a charity that feeds labourers and supplies them with groceries. In the first six months after setting up in August 2008, it served more than 45,000 meals to the hungry and those on low incomes.

I originally heard Lola [of Volunteer in Dubai] on the radio talking about the need to do food handouts to labourers and immediately called her. She asked if I would like to manage the project. It was exactly what I had been looking for; we had been living in Bahrain for 18 years before moving to Dubai and I had been active in a lot of charitable organisations there. I had also grown up seeing my father assisting friends and relatives, so I guess helping others is in my blood.

We started working with Dr Devenapally Shashikala, the Karama doctor who cooked for labourers in her spare time, by supplying her with meals, but we now operate independently and go directly to the people we help ourselves.

There are two strands to the charity: providing groceries and sponsoring meals. Individual donors give us goods such as rice, lentils, spices, fruit and oil, and every Friday I go with volunteers to hand them out to labourers.

We have between 50 and 100 donors each week and some groups of friends collect donations among themselves on a regular basis. We tend to give one item to each labourer and help up to 200 each week. Sometimes the donors come along so they can see where their donations are going, others just hand them over. We do not just supply labour camps but also houses in Satwa and Sonapur, where up to 20 workers are living in one room.

Some of the workers are on a daily rate and do not have a guaranteed steady income. At first, I was worried about how to identify the most needy, but most areas have a leader who knows which labour camp is most desperate. Now it is getting easier for me to say where the need is greatest.

Two kilograms of rice means nothing to us, but for the labourers it means they can save a few pennies and send the extra money home. Some fall to the ground and touch your feet as a sign of respect because they are so grateful. It is very sad.

The other way people can help is by sponsoring a meal for a group of labourers. On our website we have eight meal options, from rice and dhal priced at Dh3.50 a head to a banquet at Dh12.50 a head. Our prices start from a meal for 100 labourers, but depending on which menu option the sponsor chooses, they can feed thousands. Anyone who wants to sponsor a meal gives us a budget and I find a suitable camp. We have a lot of businesses sponsoring such meals and are hoping to do one iftar a week throughout Ramadan.

Originally we had volunteers providing meals themselves, but as the need grew we had to re-evaluate how we could support the operation and have now teamed up with Freshly Frozen Foods, which supplies large quantities of cooked food at subsidised cost from its plant in Jebel Ali.

Once I have identified a camp, people from Volunteer in Dubai collect the food trays and serve them at the chosen site. We have about 20 volunteers each time.

I find helping the labourers directly rather than donating through a charity extremely satisfying. We interact with them and hear their stories. Sometimes they just want to unburden their problems and feel someone is listening to them. Sometimes they do not need to say anything. The look on their faces is enough.

I would like more schools to incorporate volunteering for projects like this into the curriculum so pupils can see how the other half of Dubai lives.

God has given me a good house, a good husband and good children. This is something I can give back now my children have grown up.

As told to Tahira Yaqoob

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Farida Siddiqui

Abu Dhabi Red Crescent Society

Siddiqui, 64, was born in India, but has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past 30 years. She is a long-serving volunteer (over 20 years) with the Red Crescent and was the recipient of the organisation's 1997 Humanitarian Award given by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

I have been trying to do charitable acts for as long as I can remember, so I've lost count of the number of people I have helped. I deliver food and supplies to those in need - whether that be construction workers, street cleaners or gardeners. I also visit the handicapped, those less fortunate and sick children in hospital.

Even as a child I had the urge to always lend a hand, and my mother was a great inspiration. She would always give clothes and items to the poor, and during Ramadan she would prepare extra meals for people. She would tell us children: "First the poor will eat and then you." I learnt the basics of humanitarianism from her.

I think it's the duty of every citizen to do something to help their community. You don't need to do great things to make a change. Anything can be an act of charity - a smile, giving a thirsty person a glass of water, visiting someone who is sick.

It gives me such pleasure in my heart to try to help others, and I feel some people are just born to try to make this world a better place.

I remember when my husband used to work for an oil company, the wives used to hold tea parties that boasted tables laden down with exquisite food. But much went uneaten and was thrown away. There are so many starving people in the world and here we were wasting enough food to feed an entire family. It got me thinking about alternative solutions.

I think it's the small things that can really matter. I have been collecting plastic bottles and filling them with fresh water to keep in my freezer. Every day when I pass by construction workers, gardeners or any people who work outside, I give them the cold water plus fruit and biscuits. They come running now when they see me. I think the job of a construction worker is one of the toughest in the world and their plight has really disturbed me. I encourage everyone to try to help and always think about those who are less fortunate.

My work with the Red Crescent began when there were many displaced families coming to the UAE. With the help and kindness of Sheikha Fatima, a crèche was established for the children of these families. Plus, the women started art classes making handicrafts, and the elder children were taught subjects such as English and maths. Now my work includes going on excursions with the Red Crescent visiting the sick, handicapped or homeless within the Emirates. I talk with them, take them gift boxes of food and nice toiletries.

Anyone can do what I do, but I strongly believe that all acts of kindness and goodness must begin at home. Children must be raised knowing about charity and goodwill initiatives. It makes me sad when children are given a lot of money and they don't fully understand family values or how to be a charitable person. Children learn from their parents, so it's our duty to teach them small acts of public service. Keeping public parks clean, putting rubbish in the bin, and not wasting food are good starting points.

As told to Jemma Nicholls

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Maria Conceicao

Maria Cristina Foundation

Conceicao, 34, founded her own charity, the Maria Cristina Foundation. She has spent the past six years developing and running humanitarian projects in Bangladesh, focusing on providing free education to children. Born in Portugal, she came to the UAE in 2003 to work as aircrew for Emirates Airline. It was while on a trip to Bangladesh that she witnessed the extreme poverty in the slums of Dhaka.

You hear about poverty in some countries, but you don't really witness it. You cannot understand it until you hear, see, smell it. I had never experienced poverty to the extent I saw in Dhaka; young children were begging, women were working in construction, there was garbage everywhere.

I had to do something. Living in Dubai where we have everything, this was a slap in the face. I feel grateful for all that I have. I went back to the slums the following month and took the children clothes and toiletries. I made an appeal to all the cabin crew to donate towels, sheets, clothing and baby items. I was going back and forth, swapping my New York and Paris flights for flights to Bangladesh.

You have to be inhuman to visit slums like this and not want to do something. But many people feel that they want to help, but get too overwhelmed by the situation and they can't to do anything. When I looked at these people I saw the potential. However, I knew that supplying them with the basics was just a short-term solution. I wanted to help these children have a chance to stand on their own, and I knew this was through education.

In July 2005, using my own funds and also the donations of family and friends, we raised enough money to open a one-room school. I found local teachers and started with 39 children. The school has since been extended and now has more than 400 underprivileged children attending.

Since then, other initiatives under the Dhaka Project that have been put into practice include establishing a first aid and dental centre with a full-time paramedic and nurse; renovating and furnishing over 100 homes; a beauty centre was created and also sewing and embroidery classes were given so that mothers could gain more skills.

Likewise, for the fathers, a carpentry and welding training centre was established; a library was also set up plus computer lab. In that year alone we helped over 650 children and their families.

Fund-raising has now become my focus. I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and trekked to the North Pole to raise money. I have since resigned from my job to work full time for the charity. I feel I have such a commitment to these children and I love them all. I believe anyone can do what I did. I am just an ordinary girl. If I can do it, anyone can.

The school project in Dhaka is self-sufficient but only until the children are 18 years old. But then what? They need an opportunity in their adult lives. I feel I need to do something for after their schooling, which is what we are doing with the Maria Christina Foundation - getting the children to the next level.

For the past six years I have tried to get these teenagers jobs in Dhaka, but due to the caste system it stops them maximising themselves. This year as a pionering project I have tried to get the teenagers who finished studying in Dhaka jobs in Dubai. Emirates Airline Aviation College has allowed them to enroll on their training programmes, where they are tested and accepted based on potential and exam scores. Other Dubai-based companies which have employed slum dwellers are the Osteopathic Health Centre, Dulsco, the Royal Mirage and Meridien Hotel, but I wish more companies in the UAE would do this. The cycle of poverty has to be broken.

As told to Jemma Nicholls


Lola Lopez

Volunteer in Dubai

Lopez, 36, from the UK, says her goal is to save charities time and money, rather than giving them money. Dedicated to providing UAE charities with volunteers (there are now 12,342 volunteers in total) and making sure that those volunteers' skills are put to the best use, Lopez's organisations have supported, staged and managed more than 450 charitable events in the past 20 months.

I was 15 when I began volunteering, ironically as a result of being a little disruptive in school. In a bid to get me to concentrate on my schoolwork, my head teacher gave me a choice between focusing in class or delivering food to the elderly, who were too infirm to leave their homes. I opted for the latter, and a week later I was working with Meals on Wheels.

When I moved to Dubai and having frustratingly found nowhere to volunteer in my spare time, I felt I needed to make it up in a larger way, so I quit my job and went to Africa to help those in need. On my return to the UAE in January 2008, the post-election violence had torn through Kenya and I wanted to do one last little thing to help before returning to the corporate world I had left behind.

I started collecting clothing, which I had planned on taking back to Kenya to help the smaller families that had lost everything in the political clashes there. One hundred and eighty tonnes of clothing later, I realised that I had probably bitten off more than I could chew. Desperately needing help to pack all the clothing in time to make the Mombasa-bound shipment, I posted a call for volunteers on Facebook, and was staggered by the response. More than 70 people showed up, some travelling from as far as Al Ain to help. It became clear to me then that I wasn't the only one looking for good and meaningful ways to spend their spare time. That was the day Volunteer in Dubai was born.

We are running 12 full-time projects among the other events we hold in support of other organisations, and all of them are pretty simple and do what they say on the tin. There is nothing fancy about either our organisation or our projects; we just focus on getting the work done. Currently we have Aid in Motion (clothing collections for the less fortunate), Blood Donor UAE, Braille Books for the Blind, Care for Cancer Patients, Colour 4a Cause, Operation Ozone, Funday Sunday, Helping Hands, Karama Kanteen, Pass the Glass, the Dubai Animal Rescue Centre Clean Up and the Pink Book Sale. All these projects operate regular events - most weekly, some monthly - and are evolving continuously, keeping us all busy. I'm passionate about all these initiatives, but the Care for Cancer Patients project is one that I can see really does a lot of good. It provides companionship  and comfortable transportation for vulnerable cancer patients to their chemotherapy treatments. This is without doubt the project that I feel has benefitted an individual person the most.

Many people are alone in Dubai, far from their families and battling cancer without their loved ones. We believe that having emotional support is just as important as medical. I want the patients in our programme not to worry about  anything other than fighting the disease. Therefore the patients are matched up to  a volunteer companion by nationality, age and gender, and remain paired up  throughout the course of the treatment. Each pair has a couple of volunteer drivers dedicated to them as often there are so many trips to the hospital  required that it's too much for just one driver. A little family unit is then created and hopefully the patient feels not so alone.

I'm the only full-timer for Volunteer in Dubai, but I couldn't do what I do without my volunteers since this really is a team effort executed with inspiring and unwavering spirit. Empowering people to help others is a great way to quickly spread good energy and meaningful work. Then, of course, there are the 12,000-plus members we have, who are all always ready to come out to help. It is they who do the real work and accumulate the incredible number of hours each month. It never ceases to amaze me how willing people are to help out; it's very motivating.

The bottom line is that I genuinely care about people. I care about people's rights, I care about equality. It's just not right that people are suffering when there is plenty in the world of everything to go around. I feel that we all have the duty to somehow get involved and make the world a better place and not sit back and expect the world to change on its own. Or for world leaders, wealthy conglomerates or successful businesses to continuously step in.

We all share this planet and we are all responsible for it. I firmly believe that if everyone in the entire world did one small thing to help another, it might just be a passing smile to an exhausted labourer, and did so wholeheartedly and sincerely the world would be a very different place.

As told to Jemma Nicholls

To volunteer for charity through Volunteer in Dubai, call 04 452 1106 or see for the latest opportunities


Gulshan Kavarana

Special Families Support Group

Kavarana, 47, founded the Special Familes Support Group (SFS), an organisation dedicated to helping families with special needs children, in 1999. She lives in Dubai with her husband, Zeheer, who works for Dubai Dry Docks, and their children, Jenai, 21, and Zara, 14.

Zara was born in Sharjah on May 5, 1997 at Al Zahra Hospital. When she was four months old, she had a seizure that lasted for 16 hours after the second dose of the DPT vaccination. The seizure left her profoundly retarded.

It was almost like someone had a plan for me. I worked with special needs children and had always said to everyone: "I am happy to work with them, but I would not want to be a special needs parent." So when this happened and Zara was having 15 to 20 seizures a day, lasting up to half an hour each, I would literally put my head in a cushion and weep: "Why me, why me?" I didn't know where to turn and looked around for support groups but found nothing. A friend said, "If you can't find one, start one", so I did.

One day as I was bemoaning my fate, asking, "Why me?" I heard a voice say, "Why not you?" and it changed my perception. It is true that in many ways I am an ideal mother for Zara; I have experience with special needs children and I have help at home and the unconditional support of my husband.

So I started taking each day as it came and enjoying the days with no seizures and now I feel so honoured and privileged to be chosen to be a parent of Zara, my child who is a gift from God. Zara is my angel with a broken wing, who has come to enrich our lives here on Earth. Even though Zara has never spoken a sentence, never called me mum, she does not cry or laugh and occasionally we get a smile from her, which brightens up our lives. Now I say: "Thank God it was me."

SFS started with six families in my sitting room. Dealing with our own guilt-based emotions, everyday struggles and societal pressures that come with the unexpected responsibility of a special needs child is not easy. And to go through it alone can be overwhelming. We want to bring up our children with strength and dignity, but where do we find the courage to go on? At that first meeting, the mothers had tears running down their faces as they told their stories. Everyone was so happy to be there. Now we are at any given time between 100 and 150 families, and the main thing we offer each other is acceptance. We accept each other's children the way they are.

SFS holds several public events especially during the Dubai Shopping Festival and the Dubai Summer Surprises each year. We organise fashion shows, dance performances, parties and many other fun events. This is really what we are about - making sure the children have a good time.

I am dedicated to SFS from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep. My main aim is to empower mothers, and I also still work full time with special needs children at the Mawaheb Art Studio, where I teach them art and life skills. It is such a beautiful world I would never want to get out of it. A few nights ago I went to a social gathering and I was struck by how fake it all is. It is not a world in which I belong.

I was in search of a guru when Zara came along and it took me a few years to realise that my guru is sitting in my house. Zara is there to teach me; with her there are no wants, just needs - no greed, no anger, no jealousy, she accepts me the way I am, and we can all learn from that, to accept everyone around us, whether they are Hindu, Muslim or Christian. Most of the fights in the world are about religion or power. The world would definitely be a better place if we all learnt to love, respect and accept one another.

As told to Helena Frith Powell

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Published: August 6, 2011 04:00 AM


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